Passover Reflections – a Sermon on Immigration Reform delivered March 17, 2013

We are all connected to each other and to life itself through a mystical union.  Whether you see that union as ecological or economic and something you can measure, whether you see that union as something creative, mysterious and unexplainable, or whether you see that union as the thread of God binding us to each other, it is that union that will set us free.

Children’s Story:  Pharaoh, Moses, and the Ten Plagues!

Sermon

I’m trying to imagine Pharaoh sitting on his throne as Moses and Aaron come to him and say, “Our people are looking for freedom!  Let my people go!”  I’m trying to imagine all the things that would have crossed Pharaoh’s mind.

Maybe he thought about his friends in the construction industry who depended on cheap Israeli labor to build all those pyramids.  What would happen to the construction industry if he freed the Israelites?  Maybe he thought about all the landowners who depended on Israeli labor for the heavy fieldwork.  Maybe he thought about all that cheap food they produced and wondered how Egyptians would cope with rising food prices if the Israelis had to be paid living wages?   Maybe he thought about the importance of trade for Egyptian economic and military dominance.  How could Egypt possibly stay at the top of the economic totem pole if it had to actually pay the people who made all the goods that Egypt traded for the money that paid for the military that secured Egyptian dominance in the civilized world?  Maybe he even thought about all the Egyptian women who depended on Israeli women to care for their children, clean their homes, and prepare their food.  How many of them could keep that kind of service if they had to pay for it, and then how would they ever be able to maintain the kind of lifestyle that they were used to?

I bet Pharaoh couldn’t imagine his nation without cheap Israeli labor because it was the foundation of the Egyptian economy.  A lot of people near and dear to him stood to lose big time if it ended.  If he threatened their well being, he was probably toast.  So why would anyone think he’d say anything except “no” when two of those pesky Israelis by the name of Moses and Aaron dared to demand freedom!  It wasn’t just Pharaoh’s heart that hardened.  It was the heart of an entire nation that couldn’t think beyond what they knew, an entire nation that was dependent on cheap labor to grease the wheels of the economy.

How often, when the oppressed look for freedom, are they met with Pharaoh, met with all the entrenched reasons why it won’t work, why we can’t afford it, why they need to wait, and why this just isn’t the time?

Last winter while I was on sabbatical, I visited a Reconstructionist Jewish Synagogue with some friends, and in that service I heard the Rabbi explain Judaism in a way that I’d never heard.  He said that all Jewish people through time and history are connected together for eternity.   After the service I asked my friend to explain what he meant, and she looked at me with this light in her eyes, and said in all sincerity, “Krista, it means that I was at Mount Sinai.  And I was in Egypt.  This is not just a story, it’s not just history, it is our identity, it is my identity, it is here and now.  It continues in me and in all Jewish people.  We are tied together in mystical union with each other for all of time.”

In about a week and a half, Jewish people around the world will celebrate the Passover Seder, and the Seder isn’t just a great excuse to throw plastic insects like we did this morning!  The Seder is a spiritual practice that is intended to make the story of how the Israelites gained their freedom real for everyone around the table, like it was real for my friend, so that they find their place in the story and reaffirm that mystical connection with Judaism and its people through all time.

The Passover story tells you who you are.  It tells you what side of history you are on.  You are on the side of freedom, you are on the side of those who say, “Let my people go,” and this means standing for social justice not just for yourself, but for all people.   Because you were enslaved in Egypt and because you stood at Sinai when God spoke through Moses, being true to the mystical connection between yourself and your people means standing for justice, equity, and compassion for everyone.  The internalization of Passover as your story and the story of your people is a defining moment of what it means to be Jewish.

This defining Passover Moment helps explain so many things.  Did you know that Jewish Americans were at the heart of the early labor union movement in the United States because they saw unfettered capitalism as the new Egypt and the working classes as the new Israelites?  It was time to soften the heart of the wealthy and powerful so that everyone in this nation could benefit from the fruits of their labor.  The first strikes felt to many like that series of plagues because the factory owners, like Pharaoh, found themselves unable to make the necessary changes out of the goodness of their own hearts.  They had too much at stake in how things were.  They had to be forced to change.

The Passover Moment is also why many so Jewish women are the heart of the ongoing struggle for reproductive justice.  The anti-choice movement is the new Egypt and these women are like Aaron and Moses standing before Pharaoh saying, “Let my people go.”   That mystical connection that connects them to their people is also the connection that takes them out into the world to serve all people.

I think that we are all connected to each other and to life itself through a mystical union.  Whether you see that union as ecological or economic and something you can measure, whether you see that union as something creative, mysterious and unexplainable, or whether you see that union as the thread of God binding us to each other, it is that union that will not only free the Israelites but the Egyptians as well, because then as now, we are one, and no one is free until everyone is free.  Pharaoh and the Egyptians may not have been able to see it, but an economy that is dependent on cheap labor is an economy that is enslaved.  When you depend on the poverty of others for your own economic well-being, something is broken.

So let’s make this real today.  What kind of Passover Moment might we be in right now?  This nation, the nation we live in, is filled with Pharaohs holding onto their power and privilege, it is filled with Moses saying “Let My People Go!” and it is filled with Israelites yearning for freedom.  Sometimes it’s completely clear who the Egyptians are and who the Israelites are, and sometimes it’s not clear at all because life isn’t clear.  But let’s look at a real life example today and let’s ask ourselves, where’s Pharaoh, and where’s the Israelites?

This nation has depended on undocumented immigrants for cheap labor for decades – cheap construction workers, cheap farm workers, cheap factory workers, cheap landscapers, cheap domestics, you name it.  As long as this country has existed, there have been undocumented immigrants.  Many of our ancestors came here at undocumented immigrants, so this is nothing new.  But during the Reagan years, American industries were encouraged to go to Mexico and invite undocumented workers to America.  Undocumented workers helped them avoid unionization and made it possible to pay very low wages.  The workers came because even the worst jobs in the U.S. provided a better life than they could get in their home country, and they could send money to their families who needed it desperately.

Thirty years later we have a permanent underclass of people and an economy that depends on their cheap labor.  Just like Egypt, America has become accustomed to having its standard of living subsidized.  In the meantime, these people, these human beings, made their lives here and raised families here, but there is always that dead end that happens when you are undocumented.  It’s become pretty clear that this is not sustainable and although many have been trying to pass comprehensive immigration reform, it hasn’t worked yet. Every time we get close to real reform, Pharaoh shows up and it’s like he’s sitting in his throne, looking at Aaron and Moses, and wondering what he might lose if he listens to them.

What I’m wondering is what it will finally take to make immigration reform happen?  Is it going to take an angel of death, is it going to take some terrible price that will be extracted from this nation to convince those with power that something has to change?

For years, immigration reform hasn’t happened because the people paying the price are not the ones benefitting from the system.  It was the workers who paid the price.  But it made no difference how many people died trying to cross into the U.S.  It didn’t matter how many families were separated.  It didn’t matter that promising students were being removed from the only country they’ve ever known.  It didn’t matter that many states were passing anti-immigration laws that denied basic civil rights.  It didn’t because the price was being paid by the people who didn’t matter, and whether we like it or not, undocumented immigrants don’t matter in the same way that many of us do. It’s just the way this country is right now.

But in November, those who do matter paid the price.    One party lost the last election because the Hispanic vote finally had enough critical mass to make a difference.  The proverbial rivers of this nation ran with a bit of blood, and now look!  Pharaoh has finally come to the table ready to do business.  And lest you think I’m associating Pharaoh with only one political party, I didn’t see either party having anything to do with immigration reform until just before the last election.  Everyone was sitting on their thrones scoping out the scene and deciding that it wasn’t the time, even though the human toll for their inaction was tremendous.

I sure hope the momentum we have now lasts, that Pharaoh won’t say all right, you get what you want, and then his heart will harden and he’ll change his mind.  It’s like we’re at our own Passover Moment, and I think that this is where we come in. We can help ensure that Pharaoh’s heart doesn’t have a chance to harden again.

In just a few weeks, a delegation from this congregation is scheduled to visit the St. Louis office of Senator Claire McCaskill and we’re doing this because we were contacted by the Unitarian Universalist Association and asked to be Moses.  Senator McCaskill is a strong supporter of immigration reform in a conservative state that can be anti-immigrant. When she voted her conscience and supported the Dream Act she feared it would be her last vote and it would cost her the November election so for those of us who want humane comprehensive immigration reform, it is to our benefit that she knows there is considerable support in Missouri.  We are going to ask her to stay strong, to advocate for a clear path to citizenship and to champion family unity.  So far, our team consists of four people, including me, and if you want to join us, you are more than welcome.  We are going on Thursday April 4th at 1 p.m.   Her office is down in the Loop and as far as I’m concerned, the more the merrier.

As people of faith, let’s be on the right side of history.  We are at our Passover Moment.  Let’s do our part to make this a nation where immigration reform happens for the right reasons, because of a deep commitment to justice, equity, and compassion.  Let’s be the voice that says let my people go.  These are our people, our neighbors, our sisters and brothers.  We are bound in a union that says we are one.

Amen and blessed be.

N.B. – These sermons are made available with a request: that the reader appreciate that, ideally, a sermon is an oral/aural experience that takes place in the context of worship – supported and reinforced by readings, contemplative music, rousing hymns, silence, and prayer – and that it is but one part of an extended

conversation that occurs over time between a minister and a covenanted congregation.  This sermon may be freely shared and reproduced, provided that credit is given to the author.   

 

 

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About kristataves

I am a Unitarian Universalist minister serving the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL. St. Louis is my residence. I am a dual American and Canadian citizen living in the great state of Missouri and building my life in this wonderful and sometimes very frustrating state.
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One Response to Passover Reflections – a Sermon on Immigration Reform delivered March 17, 2013

  1. I am a Jewish Pagan Unitarian Universalist. I love this blog. What you said about Passover and America’s immigration situation is right on and I agree with you. We have a Passover seder every year and we update it periodically to keep it current because it is today’s story as well as the past. Every time I chop apples for the traditional charoses or eat matzo, I feel connected to Jews everywhere. That is my Jewish moment.

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